Henning: Tigers can take their time, but 2021 options don’t include a standstill

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Tigers fans are mad.

And no one blames them.

Chris Ilitch, who represents a family’s ownership, is sick about red ink that has spilled in such steady flow it could fill an Olympic-size natatorium.

And, in fairness to a person whose money is happily spent by others, he has a point, as well, especially as a certain 100-year pandemic ravages everyone’s world.

The issue, sports-wise anyway, is a big-league team at Montcalm and Woodward in Detroit that has frazzled an old baseball town’s faithful. The Tigers haven’t been in the playoffs since 2014, they’re on their way to another loss-lashed year after a slew of odious seasons, and everyone in a Tigers-wired region is sick of the gloom.

There’s a lot to sort through here, but if it please the court, a five-point overview is offered that’s probably going to tick off both sides:

► 1. The Tigers no longer will write checks as freely and as exorbitantly as they did from 2004 through 2016. That was Mike Ilitch’s way, and he was about as close to Yankees mogul George Steinbrenner, who never met a free agent he didn’t want to pay, as you’ll see in baseball’s modern era.

You will see investments, instead, on drafting and development, which is every team’s credo but one the Tigers seemed to have lost in the murk of the past six years as Mike Ilitch’s debts to Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann, and other overly wealthy players were either retired or diminished. This brought on a boom-and-bust era in Tigers history that wasn’t necessary when a team built right needn’t suffer from rock-bottom extremes. That is, if everyone practices a bit of prudence.

In fact, drafting and development — big upgrades in technology, staff, and most important, new approaches to Draft Day — has kicked in during the past three seasons, which is the main reason why a hot new manager named AJ Hinch signed on in October.

► 2. Hinch wasn’t taking the Tigers job because he wanted to spend a lot of seasons losing and securing early-round draft prizes. Hinch knows he has a chance to win, maybe steadily, in Detroit, as kids like Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson show up and — yes, he has assurances here — as Chris Ilitch adds sensible free agents.

True, Hinch would have jumped on the White Sox job six weeks ago if it hadn’t been handed to Tony La Russa. But he always liked what the Tigers were constructing and saw how, if he could be patient, Detroit was a blue-chip move for a manager who did, and who will, have other job options.

The Tigers were appealing for reasons that are as true in December as they were in October. And not a lot has changed even as the Tigers wait with a limited checkbook for free agency’s market to cool and for some desperately needed help to become somewhere near (in their view) affordable.

(Note to Tigers: The White Sox, who look like they’ll be plundering American League Central rivals for the next half-dozen years, added a superb starter Monday in a trade for Lance Lynn, while the re-seeding Royals spent $17 million on a guy the Tigers could have used, Carlos Santana. Fans in Detroit notice these things.)

► 3. Free agency, of course — even more than trades when the team doesn’t have much in the way of trade chips — is where life gets sticky. The Tigers are in line with 20 or more clubs that have meager (that’s one word for it) money to spend on 2021’s guns for hire. Ballpark revenues were wiped out in 2020 and COVID-19 continues for now to remain pretty much in charge. Argue with Commissioner Rob Manfred and his clubs about this, but be prepared to argue well past bedtime. Lots of teams are broke.

Business models averse to deep loss and debt are in place at a couple of dozen front offices beyond Detroit. Baseball gets no exclusion from owners who were able to buy big-league teams mostly because they learned to run orderly businesses.

It would help, of course, if owners opened books and backed up with raw red numbers all the carnage they insist has turned their teams into Edgar Allan Poe tales.

But they aren’t terribly forthcoming. This secrecy has long been an irritant for the players’ union, just as it now leads various fed-up Tigers fans to stew and more or less say: Take this team and your poverty pleas and be sure to tuck them curbside, right next to Tuesday morning’s trash.

A few words of necessary rebuttal here: The clean-up at Comerica Park the past six years has indeed been massive. And that has come as no surprise. The payroll debt run up by Mike Ilitch as a team got old and crushingly expensive was monstrous. Salaries have since been pared to about $53 million — more than half of which is owed to one man, Cabrera — which sounds like an invitation to splurge on free agents ahead of 2021. Unless, that is, you’re one of those 20-some teams like the Tigers that says it can’t justify another red-ink spigot.

Here, again, Comerica Park’s customers have a different view that calls into question the Tigers’ credibility when even the Royals have been fattening-up. Not a lot of sympathy will flow toward the Ilitch family when it still has Little Caesars pizza, which has done what most businesses haven’t done during a pandemic — flourish. Fans won’t care to dwell on a casino and on Foxtown assets that have either been stressed or demolished. They’ll instead deduce that pizza should make possible an investment in George Springer or J.T. Realmuto or another of those trophy free agents waiting to be courted.

Look, most people get it. Baseball is a separate business. And not often a money-maker. The Tigers were losing their tail even during the playoff years. They’ve been gushing financial plasma all as the franchise, which cost Mike Ilitch $85 million, would today be sold for $1 billion or much more.

It would help if the Ilitches offered graphic numbers on these steady baseball losses, but the people who internally have info know this team for years has been a financial car crash. Mike Ilitch knew this was a probability, an inevitability, he wouldn’t be around to confront in its latter awful stages. He died in 2017, all as a mid-market payroll so steep it forced luxury-tax penalties was paired with a non-contending Tigers team.

An owner’s son today no doubt understands there are consequences to fiscal discipline, which might not be the term Chris Ilitch uses as he looks at the Tigers books and sees Chernobyl.

But he knows this …

► 4. Fans have every right to say: “I’m finished with the Tigers. If the team isn’t investing in a quality product, I’m not spending a solitary dollar on tickets.”

There’s the irked Tigers fan’s perfectly fair prerogative. And you’ll see plenty of that disgust take a toll, at the box office and on TV sets, if the team that presumably and eventually takes the field in 2021 hasn’t changed appreciably.

The bet here, quite publicly, is they will add two or three or four reasonable talents that will make 2021 less tortured for fans who really would appreciate losing fewer than 90 or 100 games.

But give them, and really all teams, some essential time there.

The MLB frat brothers were blindsided last month by relatively big money the Braves paid on one-year deals for pitchers Charlie Morton ($15 million) and Drew Smyly ($11 million) as well as $8 million coughed up by the Blue Jays for a somewhat fragile starter, and one-time Tigers property piece, Robbie Ray.

It was double what the industry had expected. Doubling dollars at this point in MLB’s free-agent annals is something akin to a financial terrorist attack. Most of the clubs, including a team from Detroit, are hoping the market eases in January, and even into February, and that they can bring aboard help in deals that, given COVID’s hits, can be justified.

The poverty pleas aren’t all bogus. Proof exists in the number of employees let go (the Tigers have parted with some longtime scouts), furloughed, or given haircuts on their salaries. No one is talking about the latter circumstance, but the Tigers are believed to have taken hits across the board.

What matters, or rather what should matter, is that they haven’t backed away from the draft-and-development end. Budgets have remained relatively intact.

Which is the best way out of this mess and the only way to build future teams that avoid the long down-cycle that followed Detroit’s baseball euphoria from 2006-14.

► 5. Returning to that ever-boiling pot of gruel known as free agency …

There are boundaries here, absolutely, even if fans snort. Recall last week that a pair of hitters, Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs and Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario, were among a herd of non-tendered free agents.

Local fans wondered why the Tigers didn’t simply throw an expendable prospect or two at the Cubs and Twins and acquire a couple of heavy artillery pieces for a lineup that screams for bats.

Here’s the reason:

No team, the Tigers included, offered even throwaway prospects to grab Schwarber and Rosario. And all for the same reason those players were being non-tendered. The money was too steep to justify bringing them back — or even trading for them. In their appraisal, the Tigers were no different from other clubs.

Fans can rail all they want, but here’s where economics overrule sentiment. Here’s where owners remind the customers that it’s a kick to spend others’ money but that they follow a different playbook. They have decided in 2020 that those dollar figures are indefensible. And that’s how market realities govern MLB business.

At the same time, fans should realize this backing away from bucks is, almost certainly, temporary.

There is a probability the 2021 season will be played, likely closer to its old 162-game ceiling, as COVID vaccines arrive. The season figures to start later, as spring training likely will be delayed, but business is expected to return to a point where fans, at some juncture in 2021, will be allowed back.

In the Tigers’ case, this will happen at about the same point their younger studs like Greene and Torkelson show up, joined by a fresh young rotation that, skills-wise, will move the Tigers closer to respectability, and even contention.

Chris Ilitch has not lied to Hinch. Nor to his front office. He will spend more aggressively when a pandemic has finished punching the world into submission. That brand of investment figures to be more on display a year from now.

In fact, it’s the only path to contention — adorning your new kids corps with seasoned help — and Chris Ilitch understands it.

What fans should keep in mind is that too often they’ve been looking at the Tigers through the wrong end of their telescopes.

Free-agent spending isn’t a yardstick by which a team’s competitiveness, or its zeal for winning, is best shown. Rather, it’s tied to drafting and signing young talent. This is how you stay in the hunt from year to year even when free-agent budgets aren’t lavish.

And it’s that front-door delivery where the Tigers most have failed during the past decade. Reasons for the falloff have been explained repeatedly — bad draft positions, traded prospects, and forfeited picks during the heyday gashed Detroit’s drafts — but the inability to bring to the farm reasonable amounts of pitching and position talent is why today you have a team screaming for quality everyday lineup pieces.

And that’s why so many fans want this front office jettisoned.

If you’re going to accurately slam the Tigers for anything the past decade, take your eyes off free agency and payrolls and instead focus on what got them into this mess: bloated payrolls, crippling investments (ordered essentially by Mike Ilitch), bad drafts, and too little international talent compensating to any degree for a farm that only lately has resurrected.

The front office is responsible for the latter. Absolutely. And if things don’t change there, in a fashion as convincing as the past couple of drafts have promised, then Al Avila and the rest of a front office in the fans’ crosshairs won’t be around for the next inevitable rebuild.

This was all seen a half-dozen and more years ago — the big contracts that fans absolutely loved were going to make for a long, lingering clean-up.

Which is precisely what arrived. The criticism here, from the outset, was that a mandatory Tigers re-do didn’t begin in 2016. But that was an owner’s decision as it was Mike Ilitch’s move to add Zimmermann, Justin Upton, re-sign Victor Martinez, etc., all of which prolonged the dark years.

If fans believe another owner or front office will make all of the above go away, and deliver them the presto-change-o contender they insist is there to be magically purchased or engineered, here’s a thought confirmed by generations of pro sports ownership.

Be careful about cheering the new guys. Make sure you’re not getting another Dan Snyder or Peter Angelos. Or a Paul DePodesta. Because the risks inherent in changing regimes can wipe away family ownership, and front-office minds, that all factored into the best years of Tigers baseball in a team’s 120-year history.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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